ARG’s. Blurring the line between reality and fiction

10 Aug

ARG’s or Alternate Reality Games have been around for a few years now. They helped launch the Batman film Dark Knight, the video game Halo and an album by Nine Inch Nails. These are just some of the many that have happened and not all of them are used for advertising.

This summer I experienced an ARG that turned into more of a chaotic story, that terrified me.

ARG’s let the player have some input into how the story progresses. The choices they can make, sometimes en masse, can change the plot as the story is being told. Other versions of ARG’s stick to a rigid plot where the player solves clues to advance the story. ARG’s merge the online world with the physical. Often they are started online but as the story progresses, there may be a need to hunt down a physical location where a clue has been left to discover.

Games like these work well on a forum that has a large, lively community. The community allows discussion of ideas and the story to the point where little nuances put in by the games designers or more often, not purposely put in, are discovered and they give new meanings and insights to the plot.

I found one of these games earlier last month. It was a small affair but still hugely entertaining and incredibly well done. The game is calledMarble Hornets. It’s about a film student who starts filming a short movie for a project. He slowly goes insane and gets haunted by this character known as slenderman. Slenderman is a german myth of a very tall, slim man like creature who haunts people who have done bad things but refuse to acknowledge their crimes. He haunts their dreams and their real life, slowly driving them insane. In other legends of slenderman, he haunts the persons dreams with dying children but that doesn’t become a part of Marble Hornets.

MH is fascinating. It seemed to start off as an ARG, and to some extents it is as there is interaction with the characters through twitter to unravel all the different plot points. But really, it’s more akin to something called chaotic fiction where a story just unfolds and you cant change the outcome.

MH starts off with the narator, who is a friend of the main character, looking through a box of tapes that the main character, Alex, used to film his project. These are shown through a series of youtube videos but they arnt in order. They jump back and forth from Alex being sane to him being crazy. All the while, you can spot Slenderman lurking in the background, and at other times, attacking Alex.

It’s very creepy. It’s filmed in a blair witch style so that they amatuerism of some of the video only adds to the creepyness and how scared you feel. Nothing every jumps out at you, they never use shock to scare you, just tension and atmosphere. This proves to me, that if you are willing to let yourself into a story, it can affect your real life. For a few days after watching the entire series, I began to get paranoid that there was a slenderman in the darkness outside my house watching me. It’s truely terrifying.

The whole drama of the story was driven by the community aspect I think. People got together on a forum and heavily discussed what was going on, spotting Slenderman everytime he turned up and trying to find meaning to every little thing that happened. It started to get really fun to hypothesize about the story and why this character was doing this certain thing.

It also spawned a fan creation. Everyman HYBRID. This started to become a true ARG in the fact that at one point in the story, a physical clue was left and someone from the real world had to go find it and present what they found to the online community discussing it. The story behind EH was interesting. It started off with these three characters making a health and fitness youtube series where they put in some Slenderman messages for fun, mainly due to MH. Then, slenderman started to actually haunt them and do various menacing things to them. The pace of this one slowed down dramatically and their real world clues were very poorly made so I stopped following the series.

I think there needs to be a very high level of quality for certain parts of ARG’s to make them believable. You need to make the audience suspend reality and step into this fictional world, so everything needs to look fantastic otherwise the effect is ruined. In EH, the real world prop was a wooden box that they had poorly drawn crude, childish images on it trying to make it look like someone who had gone insane had done it. Instead it looked like a bored child drew on a box. This ruined it for me and I stopped following the story then and there.

The proffesional ARG obviously have the monetary backing to get this part spot on. The batman ARG for example, if you took part and figured out the clues at one point, you could turn up at one of 22 bakeries. Once there you could ask for the order left under the name “Robin Banks”. You would be given a cake that contained a mobile phone, a phone number and some more information. You had to call the number to continue the game. Once all 22 numbers were called, the game could continue. This is the kind of thing that takes a lot of money behind it to achieve, but it is fantastic.

MH allowed me to participate though, theorising online and with others who watched it with me. It was great fun, even if I was scared shitless for most of it.



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